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San Rafael Swell Reds Canyon Adventure - Reds Canyon

Posted in Ultimate Adventure on March 1, 2007
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Photographers: Joanne Spivack

We stood silently in the chill of early morning, peering intently at the eastern sky. A small, thin line of orange was faintly visible on the far horizon, painting the small gap between the distant sandstone and the low clouds. We watched, warming ourselves with the hot cups in our hands, as the color slowly, almost imperceptibly, grew to a small band of intense red.

Slowly the eastern sky blossomed into streaks of orange, scarlet, and purple. The spectacle below unfolded as the terrain discarded the dark cloak of night and donned the first gray of the new day. Reds Canyon slowly revealed itself in all of its intricate wind- and water-carved glory as the red light started to paint the topmost edges of the long line of cliffs on which we stood.

The sky show continued to evolve, now adding salmon and blue to the undersides of the clouds as the day's light continued to grow. Finally, the searingly bright sun popped free of the horizon. Just as quickly, the low-hanging clouds moved back in to block the sun and the all-too-brief sunrise show was over. It had been well worth the many miles and hours it took us to reach this particular campsite overlooking Reds Canyon deep in the San Rafael Swell of Utah.

We had first visited this extraordinary spot toward the end of a week-long trip in 2004. We had been enthralled by a spectacular sunrise and plagued by a malfunctioning camera, so we knew immediately a return trip was required. We had also been intrigued by the canyon depths far below and the easily discernible road that traced its bottom. A glance at the map gave it a name, Reds Canyon, and another "must-do" had been added to our Utah backcountry list.

Fast-forward to 2006, and we were once again entering the geologic wonder of the San Rafael Swell via the Temple Mountain access road. The Swell is a fantastic exercise in topology. It is roughly oval-shaped and measures about 35 miles north to south and slightly more east to west. It can perhaps be best pictured as a giant blister on the Earth's crust with its top eroded. It sits astride Interstate 70 in the central part of the state and is defined by severely up-tilted strata on its eastern, southern, and western boundaries.

We entered from the east through a gap in the long "reef" that looks for all the world like giant shark's teeth. We met our exploring companion, Dr. Bob Telepak, at Temple Mountain and headed west, and then south, on the graded country roads that provide access to the interior of the Swell. Our first objective was the Hidden Splendor Mine, just inside the rugged southern ring of sandstone cliffs.

The Hidden Splendor Mine, like several other major workings in the Swell, owes its history to the rough and heady days of uranium extraction in the early 1950s. It was discovered by one Vernon Pick, an electrician from Minnesota. After naming his find the Delta Mine and removing one million dollars of ore from the site over two years, he sold the mine for nine million dollars and a converted sea plane. Geologists working for the new purchaser estimated that the mine contained 540,000 tons of ore with a value of 40 dollars a ton. Atlas Corporation removed only about 90,000 tons before the Atomic Energy Commission announced that it had stockpiled enough ore and removed the price guarantees for uranium ore. The mine closed in 1957 and was eventually sold for taxes.

Today, not much remains of the Hidden Splendor except some horizontal tunnels (adits) high on the cliffs, several old concrete foundations, and an airstrip that is still used by backcountry pilots. We hiked down along Muddy Creek to check out the old multiroom cabin used by the miners and a relic truck. Muddy Creek cuts through the southern perimeter of the Swell via a deep canyon here. It could, until recently, be used as a route into the southern Swell from the outside desert if one was willing to brave the quick sands of the river. It is now closed to vehicular traffic, although advocacy groups continue the battle to restore access on this historic route.

We left the Hidden Splendor and headed back north and then west to the vicinity of Tomsich Butte. We found a splendid campsite on the flats near Muddy Creek just west of the butte and bedded down for the night. The next morning, the rising sun illuminated Hondu Arch high in the towering sandstone cliffs, framing the western horizon. Hondu (or Hondoo) Arch gets its name from the Spanish term which describes the small loop in the end of a lariat and is the prominent landmark for miles around.

We explored the numerous adits around the base of Tomsich Butte. The uranium mines were started by a pair of gentlemen by the names of Hanret and Tomsich in 1951. The area was heavily mined until about 1956. One complex we investigated was large enough to have numerous ATVs' tracks inside. Some of the mine's bracing techniques are a bit... interesting... so use considerable caution if exploring.

After leaving the Tomsich Butte area, we headed north up Reds Canyon. Finally, here was the road that had so intrigued us when we first spied it from above back in 2004. While its graded surface certainly did not require four-wheeling, the scenery was outstanding! On the west, sandstone walls soar to 1,200 feet above the roadbed, providing a never-ending variation of color, pattern, and texture. Somewhere high on that almost sheer wall was the campsite where we hoped to spend our final night of the trip. We stopped to peruse the Lucky Strike Mine at the base of this high wall. Several well-preserved buildings remain, but the tunnel access has been closed with mounds of dirt.

We continued north, finally switchbacking out of Reds Canyon and climbing the highlands to the east. In the vicinity of Family Butte, we left the main road and once again headed north on a route wandering through buttes well perforated with mining activity. The road was still somewhat graded, but we were seeking a rougher route that promised a connection with Eagle Canyon still farther north. We eventually found the road that we were seeking (Trail 822 on the San Rafael Motorized Route Designations Map), locked the trucks into Low range, and pointed our hoods toward Eagle Canyon.

The road topped out on a sandstone divide between the Reds Canyon and Eagle Canyon drainages. As we stood on the pass, we observed that the vehicle course on the other side was much smaller and looked like it had been used primarily for ATVs in the recent past. We eventually found ourselves in the rocky wash bottom of Eagle Canyon. The progress was somewhat slow and laborious as we negotiated around or over the rocks. Daylight was fading by the time we passed under the soaring double spans of I-70. We pulled up for the night at the spot where further travel up Eagle Canyon is closed to motorized traffic and threw our tents out on the nearest suitable spot. The faint drone of heavy trucks on I-70 only a mile down canyon belied our isolation deep in the Utah backcountry.

The following morning, we took a hard left out of Eagle Canyon and climbed abruptly to the heights above. We were soon crossing back under I-70, this time in the confines of a narrow box culvert, and picked up the rough dirt road through Justensen Flats. We took a left once again and followed the road southwest toward the Copper Globe Mine.

The Copper Globe was, as its name implies, a copper mine. Established around the turn of the 20th century and worked off and on until World War II, it is doubtful that copper in any quantity was ever produced from the location. Several well-preserved cabins remain standing at the site, along with a historic pile of firewood that was gathered to fuel an ill-conceived smelting attempt.

We left the Copper Globe and headed down the road to our final turn into Link Flats. The road passes through the grassy meadows, climbs slightly, and ends abruptly on the rim with Reds Canyon spread out below in a 270-degree arc. Almost the entire route from our previous three days could be seen from our commanding vantage point. The jumbled expanse of sandstone that is the southern Swell was spread out before us with the Henry Mountains forming a hazy backdrop to the south.

There is a great campsite located a few feet away from this final viewpoint, and we leisurely made camp. A notch in the sandstone behind the campsite forms a natural frame for the spectacular scene below, and we anticipated the day-ending light show. Alas, a cloud bank hid the sun's final moments on the western horizon that evening.

As dawn broke on our final morning, we were once again reminded that four-wheeling the backcountry routes of the western United States offers many rewards. Camaraderie, a sense of discovery, historical perspective, a connection with our natural world, taking delight in a superlative sunrise - all compelling reasons to leave the pavement and enjoy that dirt road!

NAVIGATION
LOCATION LATITUDE LONGITUDE
Hidden Splendor Mine 38 34.133 110 {{{57}}}.362
Tomsich Butte 38 41.001 110 59.864
Lucky Strike Mine 38 45.364 110 56.959
Copper Globe Mine 38 48.229 110 54.599
Campsite at Link Flats 38 45.784 110 55.853

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